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Literacy Tests: Louisiana's Legal Barriers


After Reconstruction, white supremacists set up legal barriers to disfranchise African-American voting.

A wall stands in Louisiana between registered voters and unregistered, eligible Negro voters. The wall is the State constitutional requirement that an applicant for registration "understand and give a reasonable interpretation of any section" of the Constitutions of Louisiana or of the United States. It is not the only wall of its kind, but since the Supreme Court's demolishment of the white primary, the interpretation test has been the highest, best-guarded, most effective barrier to Negro voting in Louisiana.

From United States v. State of Louisiana, 225 F. Supp. 353 (E.D. La. 1963)

The 1898 constitution adopted what was known as a "grandfather clause," which imposed burdensome requirements for registration thereafter, but exempted from these future requirements any person who had been entitled to vote before January 1, 1867, or who was the son or grandson of such a person. Such a transparent expedient for disfranchising Negroes whose ancestors had been slaves until 1863 and not entitled to vote in Louisiana before 1867  was held unconstitutional in 1915 as a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment in a case involving a similar Oklahoma constitutional provision. Guinn v. United States, 238 U. S. 347. Soon after that decision, Louisiana, in 1921, adopted a new constitution replacing the repudiated "grandfather clause" with what the complaint calls an "interpretation test," which required that an applicant for registration be able to "give a reasonable interpretation" of any clause in the Louisiana Constitution or the Constitution of the United States. From the adoption of the 1921 interpretation test until 1944, the District Court's opinion stated, the percentage of registered voters in Louisiana who were Negroes never exceeded one percent.

From Louisiana v. United States, 380 U.S. 145 (1965) at 147

Grandfather Clause

Louisiana Const. 1898, Art. 197, § 5

Sec. 5. No male person who was on January 1st, 1867, or at any date prior thereto, entitled to vote under the Constitution or statutes of any State of the United States, wherein he then resided, and no son or grandson of any such person not less than twenty-one years of age at the date of the adoption of this Constitution, and no male person of foreign birth, who was naturalized prior to the first day of January, 1898, shall be denied the right to register and vote in this State by reason of his failure to possess the educational or property qualifications prescribed by this Constitution; provided, he shall have resided in this State for five years next preceding the date at which he shall apply for registration, and shall have registered in accordance with the terms of this article prior to September 1, 1898, and no person shall be entitled to register under this section after said date. . .

Louisiana Attorney General

Louisiana Attorney General Jack Gremillion told a group of registrars in 1959 to seek legal advice before answering any questions from the FBI or Civil Rights investigators. He held the A.G. office from 1956 through 1972.

Segregation Committee

The Louisiana Legislature created a committee, which became known as the "Segregation Committee," to seek means of accomplishing this goal. The chairman of this committee also helped to organize a semi-private group called the Association of Citizens Councils, which thereafter acted in close cooperation with the legislative committee to preserve white supremacy. The legislative committee and the Citizens Councils set up programs, which parish voting registrars were required to attend, to instruct the registrars on how to promote white political control. The committee and the Citizens Councils also began a wholesale challenging of Negro names already on the voting rolls, with the result that thousands of Negroes, but virtually no whites, were purged from the rolls of voters. Beginning in the middle 1950's, registrars of at least 21 parishes began to apply the interpretation test. In 1960, the State Constitution was amended to require every applicant thereafter to "be able to understand," as well as "give a reasonable interpretation" of, any section of the State or Federal Constitution "when read to him by the registrar." * The State Board of Registration in cooperation with the Segregation Committee issued orders that all parish registrars must strictly comply with the new  provisions. The interpretation test, the court found, vested in the voting registrars a virtually uncontrolled discretion as to who should vote and who should not.

From Louisiana v. United States, 380 U.S. 145 (1965), at 149.


 *  La.Acts 1960, No. 613, amending La.Const. Art. VIII, § 1(d), previously implemented in LSA-Rev.Stat. § 18:36. Under the 1921 constitution, the requirement that an applicant be able "to understand" a section "read to him by the registrar" applied only to illiterates. La.Const.1921, Art. VIII, § 1(d); compare id., § 1(c).